Walz says Minnesota will 'significantly beat' vaccine timeline

Gov. Tim Walz says Minnesota will "significantly beat" his original timeline for vaccinating seniors as the first Johnson & Johnson doses arrived in the state.

Walz opened a box of 4,900 J&J doses at a Fairview facility in Minneapolis on Wednesday afternoon, remarking that it was "better than Christmas." The J&J supply -- which will be uneven in the coming weeks -- joins Pfizer and Moderna allocations and marks a turning point in the state's vaccination efforts.

Walz plans to expand eligibility once 70 percent of Minnesotans ages 65 and older get a first dose; as of Wednesday, 54 percent had.

"I look at the numbers each night," Walz told reporters at the Fairview facility. "We were hoping to get 70 percent of 65 and above done by the end of March. I think we'll significantly beat that."

The optimism echoes that of his health commissioner, Jan Malcolm, who earlier in the day told the Senate Aging committee that she was "highly confident" the state would vaccinate 70 percent of seniors sooner than initially expected.

Malcolm said she thought slightly more than 70 percent of Minnesota's 918,000 seniors would actively seek a shot, and said hesitant seniors would remain a priority even after the state expands eligibility to other groups.

"70 percent is not magic, but it's a good guidepost," Malcolm said. "It's not like we're going to say, 'We've moved on now.'"

There's already vaccine saturation in northern Minnesota, Minnesota Department of Health Infectious Disease Director Kris Ehresmann said. Some seniors want to wait for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, she said.

Pharmacies are redirecting some Pfizer and Moderna supply to other parts of the state with higher demand, Ehresmann said.

Senators raised concerns about vaccine availability in the Metro.

"They're having to drive over an hour north, south, east and west to get the vaccine because it's just not anywhere here," said state Sen. Karin Housley, R-St. Marys Point.

J&J supply will be uneven in the coming weeks. States will not get any J&J vaccines next week, though Walz said an expected increase from vaccine manufacturers Pfizer and Moderna will partially offset the numbers. J&J supply will resume in the third week of the month and accelerate toward the end of the month, he said.

That mirrors comments made by the Biden administration and the vaccine manufacturers themselves. President Joe Biden says the manufacturers will have enough vaccine by the end of May to give shots to all American adults.

About 161,000 more Minnesotans will get access to a vaccine this week. Walz said he expected the number to climb to more than 200,000 a week toward the end of the month.

Minnesota's timeline makes food processing plant workers and people with specific high-risk medical conditions eligible after seniors. The group includes an estimated 72,000 people.

The next group -- all frontline essential workers and a greater number of adults with medical conditions -- continues to grow. This week, Walz added Type 1 diabetics, public health workers and judicial system workers to the group, which already included more than 1 million people.

Walz said he is considering moving all people ages 50 and older up in the priority list, as some other states have done. But no decision has been made.

Minnesota's timeline currently prioritizes frontline essential workers and people with high-risk conditions before healthy 50 to 64 year olds, who will be eligible in April or May, according to the state's timeline.